“I told you I was ill.”
|Me in my kitchen. Must fix light.|
Of course not! The line is from Shelley’s Ozymandias, a great sonnet for reciting aloud late at night when you’re alone in the house. Don’t tell me I’m the only one. It helps to have a kitchen with a bit of echo (we had ours knocked through recently, not solely for this purpose), and as you change the bin-liner, or stir your solitary mug of tea, you can especially tinker with the climactic line, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ How many exclamation marks to add to ‘despair!!!’ this evening? Where to place the emphases? ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’? ‘Look on my works, ye mighty’ (sarcastic), ‘Look on my works –’ (no).
Hours of fun.
It’s surprisingly hard to commit ‘Ozymandias’ to memory, I think because of the oddly fragmented way the phrases tumble around each other, like the stones of the ruin. So here it is in full:
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I first came across it as a child, through the BBC TV series of John Christopher’s ‘The Tripods’ (and Dad thought that TV rotted the brain). It’s intrigued me ever since. Perhaps it’s not especially hard to interpret – Pride goes before a fall, all things are transient, etc – but then, it ain’t what you say, but how you say it. (Shelley’s friend Horace Smith wrote his own Ozymandias poem, on exactly the same themes, and it’s… not as good. But I bet Shelley was awfully kind about it.)
One of the imponderables that I like to ponder is the question of how savvy Ozzy really is. Is he truly just a tyrant overstuffed with pride, or a wise philosopher king, canutely aware of his own limitations? Is the irony of his proclamation accidental, or intended? Is this king telling the mighty to despair just because his realm is so grand, or because it was so grand and still crumbled into the sand? We’ll never know, and often it’s the things you’ll never know which add up to a great poem.
‘Ozymandias’, for a lot of readers, is a pessimistic piece. To them it says, ‘No matter how great you are, or think you are, you will come to dust in the end.’ As for myself, I’m more optimistic - a ‘visage half-protruding’ kind of guy.
The bleakness of Shelley’s vision can serve, paradoxically, as a kind of release. It reassures you that it doesn’t matter how great (or insignificant) you are, because we all end up the same. So, no pressure. We may consider Shelley’s sonnet to be light years better than Smith’s, but eventually both will be forgotten, as will all of humanity’s works, from Shakespeare to Justin Bieber. See, now you’re smiling.
But the good news doesn’t end there. Because if there’s one obstacle guaranteed to stop you achieving anything, it’s the fear that you won’t measure up. You won’t win that race, you won’t pass that exam, you’ll never write a book half as good as the one you just read. So why bother? Why make the leap, if the bar is set too high? The biggest single cause of writer’s block isn’t a lack of ideas, but lack of confidence. What’s the point? I’ll never be good enough.
No, you won’t be. No-one ever is. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ says Shakespeare’s Theseus, ‘and the worst no less.’ Or (put another way by McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), ‘I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.’
If you’re going to fail anyway, then fail heroically. Don’t pass up the gift of being able to create, just for fear of falling short of some arbitrary ideal. When the final whistle blows we’ll all be in a dead heat anyway, neck and neck with Ozymandias, king of kings. The bar isn’t set too high. There is no bar. It’s all just lone and level sands, stretching far away.